Communicators Beware: Why Do People Make Bad Choices (part 2)? Reply

Creating awareness is sometimes overrated.

That was the point of part 1 of this series posted earlier this week.  When there is little or no awareness, efforts aimed at raising that awareness in a target audience can be helpful.  But a point of diminishing returns quickly emerges and, beyond that point, further awareness-raising efforts either produce little to no change in people’s behaviors or worse can actually increase instances of the undesired behavior.

changeWhat are communicators to do if they cannot simply rely on their favorite hashtag or easy, preachy messages?

Now that is a much harder question.  Digging into the research we see several models that explain a process.  An example would be Kurt Lewin’s theory of change that goes like this.


A good start, but still it does not explain what is the source of the change.  This is a useful but purely chronological process.

The Science of Us article, Awareness is Overrated, moves us closer by pointing to identity as a source of change.  The process is called motivational interviewing.  By using an OARS questioning technique (open-ended questions, affirmation, reflective listening and summaries), we can discover what roles are important to an individual.  Be it father, manager, husband, or neighbor, we all have roles that are central to our identity and a source of motivation to achieve and change.

Motivational coaching helps people find motivation in their identity and then use this to promote change.  In other words, how we see ourselves in interpersonal relationships that are important to us then serves as a potential source of motivation.

Another key source of change can be social norms.  What we think is the norm can be a powerful source of boundary setting and helping people decide what is appropriate or not.   Through the use of trusted or credible community leaders, some change efforts have succeeded at resetting community norms to change behaviors such as bullying in school.

The described approach is in theory very similar to tipping point leadership where kingpins with outsized influenced are used to lead new initiatives.  By drawing on their network and status as accepted leaders, these kingpins become the agents through which change is rolled out in an organization.  Credibility and status are used as a means of influence.

Finally, some work around Theory of Change suggests to me that one of the key methods for bringing about change is to use system 2 thinking (the brain’s analytical mode) to help people plot a thoughtful and well-designed path forward with a change initiative.  In my mind, this implies that to some degree change does not happen because there does not appear a clear and effective path forward.

Upon some reflection, we can see that efforts to bring about change must “attack the roots of people’s behaviors in sophisticated ways.”  If that is the case, then why do we still display an over-reliance on raising awareness?

In terms of mental investment, people usually look for ways to make a minimum investment.  “Awareness-raising….is easier and more straightforward [than deeper methods just described], and this can help explain why it’s so prevalent despite the dearth of empirical evidence it works.”  This is what the NY Magazine article called cognitive miserliness.

There is nothing wrong with raising awareness.  And in a social media age, the ease of counting hashtag responses and retweets can make awareness raising perhaps appear more important than it really is.  Certainly it feels good to be seen as on the right side of an issue.

But if having a real impact is important, then perhaps we might begin rethinking our approach to communications.  A more sophisticated of why people continue to make bad choices could lead us down a productive path.


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